Social web sites: the new Proprietors?

Image: Thomas Penn, second proprietor of Pennsylvania, not as nice as his dad William.

Almost a year ago, I wrote that Open data matters more than Open Source — it doesn’t matter (to you, the end user) whether a web site is using Open Source software or not, if they still keep your data locked up.

Here’s a nasty example: Robert Scoble has just had his Facebook account disabled for running a script to try to scrape his personal information off the site (since Facebook doesn’t provide him with any other way to get it).

I understand that Facebook needs to protect against malicious bots — and they might decide to restore his account once they know what Robert was actually trying to do (though for now all traces of him have vanished) — but do we really want to have hope for the good will of social sites and beg for our own data every time we want it? Are web site owners the new version of the Proprietors in the early American colonies, who can grant rights as favours when they see fit?

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4 Responses to Social web sites: the new Proprietors?

  1. John Cowan says:

    I don’t understand this.

    Of course if you upload data to other people’s servers, access to it is at their discretion, particularly if you have no contract whatsoever with them.

    If he wanted the data, he should have kept a copy himself before uploading it.

  2. david says:

    John: I don’t disagree that Facebook is acting like every other social networking site — in fact, unlike many, they do have a way to get some of your data off the site without scraping — but until users drag the social sites kicking and screaming into agreeing on interchange standards (at least file formats), social sites will be much like networking in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the Internet broke out of the academic/research world.

    It’s working in some places already. I can use OPML to move my blog subscriptions to almost any feed reader, RSS or Atom to save (most of the information in) my blog postings and comments from most hosts, and the POP3 or IMAP protocols to get my e-mail off GMail (but there’s no way to get my address book). Much of that isn’t easy, though, and usually a new site won’t import an mbox or RSS/Atom file to let me move info over. OpenID sort-of works, but most of the big sites that provide OpenId logins won’t accept them from elsewhere. FOAF might work for social graphs, but I haven’t heard of any big site supporting it yet.

  3. He wanted the contact information of people who friended him. How is that “his data”?

    Morally, the data he wanted belongs to his friends rather than to him (nor Facebook). Facebook are entirely in the right for not providing programmatic access to the data in question. If Scoble wanted to do the right thing, he should have asked every one of them personally if they assent to his using their data in the manner that he intended.

    Of course, that would have made his endeavour – benign as it may have been – completely impractical. What pity.

    Leading a principled life is hard. A lot of the A-list crowd like to bloviate about morals and integrity and openness and the commons and all the shiny happy stuff… just so long as these principles don’t become an inconvenience, whereupon they are readily ignored and their violation loudly justified. Cf. the recent Lane Hartwell blow-up.

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